By chance I attended “Slaying the Dragon,” a new opera on the subject of violence and surprising redemption, on June 17, the same day that Rodney King died. King — the victim of a savage beating in 1991 by Los Angeles police (the video of which provoked one of the worst race riots in recent American history) — famously pleaded for reason and decency: “Can’t we all get along?”
Historical examples of hatred and love have long provided fodder for operatic treatment, though decency usually gets much shorter shrift. “Slaying the Dragon,” which is based on a true story from Kansas roughly contemporary with the Rodney King beating, concerns Larry Trapp, a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon who renounced violence and converted to Judaism. The opera begins in the aftermath of the bombing of a local Asian Center and climaxes with the barely thwarted bombing of the local synagogue, with the rabbi delivering a considered and eloquent plea for reason and decency derived from the words of a different victim of violence and hatred, also named King.
In the sermon he penned while in jail during the 1957 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, also had its own similar history of hate, such as when, barely seven years prior to the aforementioned events, the city police themselves bombed a residential house, creating a fire that burned 11 people to death and destroyed 60 neighboring homes. Today Philadelphia seems to be a hotbed not of fires, but of new operas. Opera America, the national professional organization for opera companies and performers, held its annual conference there this year in June. Andrew Kurz, founder and musical director of Philadelphia’s enterprising 14-year-old Center City Opera Theater (CCOT), has for the past four years commissioned and premiered a new opera annually, and arranged for this year’s offering to coincide with the conference.
Riveted by the revelatory 2001 book “Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman,” by Kathryn Watterson, Kurz commissioned librettist (and former chief editor and CEO of the Jewish Publication Society, currently managing director of CCOT) Ellen Frankel to create a musical theater work based on the story, and Michael Ching, composer of four other operas (and former general and artistic director of Opera Memphis), to write the score. In a talk before the performance, Ching explained that even as a fourth-generation American of Chinese ancestry, as a young man he still encountered taunts of “Go back to where you came from!”
Creating an opera is a strangely alchemical process. How do the music and words lift the audience into another realm? When the subject matter is familiar history, it is an even more challenging task to incorporate period fashion, local vernacular and musical style. Nevertheless, the idea of operas ripped from the news headlines has a long tradition. Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” was about the assassination of the king of Sweden (although to get past the censors, the victim was changed to the governor of colonial-era Boston). Marc-Anthony Turnage has just had a major success with “Anna Nicole,” an opera about tabloid star Anna Nicole Smith. And my pick of last year, “Kommilitonen!” (“Young Blood!”) by Peter Maxwell Davies, wove together three historical protest movements: the anti-Nazi White Rose, James Meredith combating racism in Mississippi and the Cultural Revolution in China.
Inevitably, Frankel took artistic liberties with elements of the Kansas events, such as changing the names and transforming the cantor into a rabbi. Kurz conducted the score of “Slaying the Dragon,” written for 16-piece orchestra and 11 singers, plus adult and children’s choruses, with clarity and passion. But the music itself, though admirably structured and varied, is largely uninspired. It is mostly in a square 4/4 time signature, except when the subject of peace drives it into saccharine waltz 3/4 time, or when strife drives it into compound meters.